ST. LOUIS, Mo. —
The Martinez family sat outside on picnic tables in the Texas heat, temperatures rising above 100 degrees, and listened to the story of how some of the refugees made it to this country.
Megan Martinez, 33, studied the murals painted on the fence next to them -- portraits of people who had traveled by packed trains through South America. At various points, the shelter director explained, people would throw food on the train so the passengers could survive until the next stop.
Megan's 17-year-old stepson, Holden, was absorbed in the story told by the director of Casa Marianella in Austin, Texas. Later that evening, Holden would be cooking dinner for the families staying at the shelter. He would take special care to make the spaghetti sauce from scratch for them.
Megan describes this moment of their family vacation as life-changing.
"Seeing my kids understand the system, learning about how people come to live here because it's not safe to live in their own country, seeing the wheels in their heads turning ... as a parent, that was huge."
This was the second summer the Martinezes, who live in the St. Louis area, embraced the idea of vacationing for a good cause. As part of their annual 10-day summer vacation, each family member -- Megan, husband Chris, 41, and their three children, ages 17, 9 and 8 -- took a role in planning a different volunteer project. They drove from St. Louis to Texas and worked on six service projects during the trip. They helped sort donations at a distribution center for the Joplin School District in Missouri. In Dallas, they took down a sunflower display at Peace Community Gardens in preparation for its move to a new location. In San Antonio, they worked a Family Fun Night at the San Antonio Museum of Art. They cooked and served dinner at the refugee shelter in Austin. And they painted and assembled temporary huts for people still living in tents after this summer's tornados in Oklahoma City.
Holden said he got to practice his Spanish while talking to residents at Casa Marianella, and it changed his perspective on the sorts of problems that come up in a typical, middle-class American high school.
"It was kinda cool how they could be so positive and so happy despite all they had been through," he said.
Chris Martinez, who works as the chief development officer for Catholic Charities, and Megan, who works as the recreation director for Missouri's Veteran's Home, are naturally service-oriented people. They wanted to find ways to foster the same spirit in their children and discovered that the family vacation was an opportunity to combine relaxation and volunteering. Each family member researched organizations in advance, then sent emails to see if there were opportunities for the family to help out for a few hours during their visit.
"You can walk out after performing a project and not have to say anything," Chris said. "What they witnessed is so much more powerful than anything my wife or I could say."
It wasn't always easy to follow through on the commitments they had made while planning. Some ideas sound great in theory and feel more challenging in execution.
The night the family arrived in San Antonio, they visited the Riverwalk and enjoyed a late dinner. No one got much sleep, and they did tourist activities the entire next day in the heat. That evening, they had committed to working a family fair night at the local art museum.
"If we were in full vacation mode, we would have probably done nothing. Sat in the A/C, maybe gone to get some ice cream," said Chris. "Getting ready, everyone was very quiet. It was clearly not what people would have chosen to do in that particular moment."
But once they arrived, the energy from the crowd and the event lifted them. The times they would have rather slept in or spent an extra hour by the pool were outweighed by the payoff of being involved in the local community in a way they couldn't be as tourists.
Holden met a man from Colombia at the refugee center and they found a soccer ball at the house. They played soccer together for an hour in the backyard.
His father said they go to their different projects with the intent of giving to others. But invariably, people keep giving back to them.
Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age while trying to keep up with her tech-savvy children. Find her on Twitter: @AishaS.